I, Captain

Reflections from Autodrone 22

By Adam Bartley

Electrical engineers are unsung and unseen heroes of the modern world. Civilization would undoubtably grind to a halt, and probably collapse without them. We will look to them to make our expanding, heating, gas guzzling industrial world emission free and sustainable. Yet Norway is running out of them, with far more electrical engineering jobs than there are graduating electrical engineering students.

Watching Autodrone 22 in Horten, it is hard to understand why this is, because studying electrical engineering looks like a lot of fun. A fun, guaranteed, well paid job, saviour of humanity, why so few students?

Collision avoidance (USN)

Photo: M. Tannum

At the Autodrone competition students from Norway’s universities do battle at sea, in the same waters where the Vikings tested and sailed their feared longboats a thousand years ago. These vessels though can see, think, decide, and move without any help from a human operator.

The homegrown autodrones are not as funny or ramshackle as you might imagine. They range from collections of expensive looking gadgets perched on twin hulls of Styrofoam to mean looking metal vessels bristling with arrays of the latest in sensor technology.

The competition consists of four tasks that the boats must complete in fully autonomous mode: the speed gate, obstacle channel navigation, collision avoidance and docking. I myself am rubbish at parking boats, and when an autonomous machine does something better than you, much better, based on a bachelor degree’s three month thesis project, it gives pause for thought.

The philosophical implications of these machines are hard to avoid. Isaac Asimov would have been thrilled to attend this event. He would notice the prominent bright yellow and red ‘kill switch’ on the boats. He would have appreciated the cool-headed pragmatic problem solving of the engineering students. Autodrones are systems, built by teamwork and logic, fusions of parts and knowledge cross discipline, solutions to specified problems.

Even so, when the call ‘FULLY AUTONOMOUS!’ indicates that a boat has been untethered from human remote control, eyes sharpen and chatting stops. It is hard not to read emotions into the behaviour of autonomous drones. One of them speeds off towards a yellow target buoy but breaks hard and too early, bringing to mind an over cautious child learning to ride a bike. Another takes a hilariously wide detour around the buoy, as if to make sure it is seen to do the right thing.

I find myself rooting for these boats in a way I simply would not if the same competition were done for drones piloted remotely. During the collision test, a boat noses out of the start gate, spots the distant collision boat and immediately reverses back to its start position. It tries again, and retreats. After several rounds of this charming, nervous ballet, the students spot the coding error behind it, an ‘OR’ where an ‘AND’ should be. Updated, the boat sets off with bravado. It pauses for the collision boat but decides it has waited quite long enough, powers up and drives straight into the side of it. Another programming tweak and the behaviour is perfected.

Ready for competition (UiT)

Photo: M. Tannum

Anthropomorphising machines is nothing new, but behaviour implies personality, and sinister sci-fi futures become hard to ignore; imagine if the craft was loaded with explosives, imagine if it decided people were an obstacle best removed…

Robotic arms on car production lines are an impressive but dumb form of automation. Mindless, brute repetition. Programming an autodrone is more subtle, like giving someone advice. Factory robots depend on predictable, artificial environs. The sea though is not flat, the wind doesn’t blow at a constant from due north. Unpredictable humans are driving the other boats. It is no good then, telling an autodrone exactly what to do. Autodrones can even be programmed to learn from their mistakes, and from the mistakes of others, or countless simulations, in the form of learning data. Robot autonomy technology is moving fast. Videos from the likes of Boston Dynamics are both hilarious and unsettling, showing stability training of robots being tripped, shoved, and dragged as their autonomous learning software tries to get a job done. Autonomous machine rights trials spring easily to mind.

A driving factor here is economy, to achieve more while people do less. Another is growth, doing more than was previously possible. Safety is yet another factor. Machines doing the jobs that are dangerous, or boring, or so boring that they become dangerous when people lose focus or become drowsy. Machines putting out fires, checking deep sea cables. What of space exploration with its vast distances and hostile environments? Or the most dangerous jobs of all, policing where gangs are armed to the teeth, or marching into battle while bombs drop all around you. This is the bread and butter of science fiction, where human and robot can meet in opposition.

The Captains and their humans

Photo: M. Tannum

The chess robot that recently grabbed and broke a child’s finger when they tried to move a piece a little too early at a tournament in Russia is a thought-provoking foreshadowing of robot human interaction in a robot vs human setting. Militarised autonomous machines are perhaps inevitable. They will likely be able to sense better, collate faster, react faster and with greater precision that any human operator. Once that happens simple arms race evolution dictates that any country that values its own autonomy had better be up to speed, and the Geneva convention should too.

Autonomy though has been with us for a long time, working invisibly and without pause within electrical systems, regulating the electricity required in every facet of modern life, in systems designed by electrical engineers. Teslas and self-landing space rockets are the sexy, showy end of a vast spectrum of system engineering that keeps our modern world on the go. There is no turning back, but with enough smart, reflected people like those one meets at an Autodrone event, it is a brighter, safer, sustainable world ahead of us.

So why aren’t enough young people applying to become engineers? Perhaps they are afraid of the maths, having known only abstract number juggling from school. Maybe they think, wrongly, that engineering is not interesting or exciting. The field of engineering education surely has a PR job to do, and the Autodrone competition is an inspired step in the right direction.

Drone sunset

Photo: E. Wold